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Sunday, January 20, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Custom Coops: From penthouse perches to covered porches, city chickens are sitting pretty

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If I were a chicken, I'd want to live in Seattle.

As an urban chicken, you enjoy all the benefits of cosmopolitan Northwest living — without having to worry about the high cost of housing. (Poultry, here and everywhere, typically don't invest much thought in the vagaries of the real-estate market.)

Overcrowding wouldn't pose a problem because a city ordinance limits outdoor pets to three per household. Even in a small backyard, that's estate-size space. Especially compared to the residential density endured by country cousins who are commercially grown and forcibly crammed into tenement squawk boxes.

Key word here is Pet. Means you'll likely live out your natural life in a lovingly constructed custom home. Doesn't guarantee a Chicken McMansion, but sure beats the soup pot. (Castle du poulet trumps chicken cassoulet!)

Most folks who keep urban fowl say they raise the birds for spiritual sustenance rather than the meat. They find peace in watching their feathered friends scrabble and strut. They share organic eggs with neighbors. They take extraordinary delight in harvesting poultry poop for their garden.

"Not to sound like a big hippie . . . but now that people are in this urban environment, they're searching for something to get back in touch with the earth," says Phil Megenhardt, city chicken instructor for Seattle Tilth. "I sort of teach it as a chicken-empowerment class."

Seattle may be the nation's only major metropolis to offer layfolks formal education in fowl fundamentals. In three years, Megenhardt graduated about 300 people from his course. This year's class, taught by Power Point whiz Amy Hagopian, was standing-room-only. If each chicken fancier went on to establish a flock and followed the three-chicken rule, that would add up to 1,000 chickens amongst us.

The actual poultry population is probably much larger since city officials, in recent years, have been too preoccupied with riots and traffic jams to enforce the chicken clause. Into this unregulated atmosphere, a profusion of creative coops has cropped up.

Perhaps it's because permits are not required for coop construction. Or maybe the hen houses are a reaction to the '90s boom of faux chateau boasting marble bathrooms grand enough to host G-8 summits.

Then again, among the composting crowd, chicken coops may serve as a simplicity status symbol. Call it pullet prestige.

Several of the Northwest's most important examples of coop design are showcased every year in the Seattle Tilth Chicken Coop Tour, a self-guided stroll through urban hen houses. Notable coops include a traditional Cape gazebo, a modern condo topped by a penthouse, a Wild West Saloon and an architect-designed chalet with cedar framing, galvanized steel roof and hinged Lexan windows in classic four-pane pattern.

The luxury home tour, Street of Dreams, may give visitors an excuse to indulge in velvet voyeurism under the guise of looking for practical ideas. But the Tilth Tour offers even more insight into neighbors' intimate habits: How often they change their straw bedding. Who keeps a rooster on the side. Secret spots where hens prefer to lay their eggs.

Not all of the featured chicken houses are poultry palaces. Some nod to practical considerations, such as ease of cleaning. Others have an environmental focus. Several lean toward low-budget construction. A few just lean.

• • •

AFTER THEIR greyhounds died of cancer, the Nichol family decided they wanted low-maintenance pets. Joan considered goats (not enough room in the city) before settling on chickens. Ray and 12-year-old Robin took on coop construction as this year's father-daughter summer project.

The resulting coop, in hen-speak, is comparable to the Kennedy compound or perhaps Camp David. The seven-part cedar structure includes a towering main house (fully insulated) with sandblasted glass windows (etchings feature chicks, hens and eggs, of course!), skim concrete floor, two nesting boxes, ridge vents, a swinging drawbridge, four operable glass windows, seven doors, an enclosed pen with screen windows and Plexiglas storm windows, three roosts, large front porch, artsy cutouts of local wildlife (recycled from a playhouse), a long covered breezeway and a chicken "tractor" that can be alternated between two garden beds so hens have access to a steady supply of grubs while they drop fresh fertilizer.

With its whimsical notched shingles, this classy chicken compound echoes the thatched-roof theme of Ray's nearby toolshed, which has traditional bulging "eyebrows" over the windows as in English country cottages.

"I didn't want it to look real Northwest," Ray says. "I wanted an Asian look, a European look."

Not only does the trapezoidal roof shape and cascading ridgeline lend a pagoda quality, the roofs are modular and can be removed. In fact, the whole coop easily disassembles. Ray trained as a draftsman at an all-boys British military school and is now a photography instructor at the Art Institute of Seattle. He designed the cottage compound in his head and built it with daughter Robin in about a week's worth of time spread over a couple months.

"I have no idea how much it cost, and don't care," he says. "Chickens could care less. But if you're going to have them as pets, it's not much of a leap to make their habitat something you can enjoy looking at that becomes part of the architecture of the yard, rather than an old doghouse."

• • •

CHICKEN OWNER Ann Fittante claims she would've been happy with a modest shelter for her three banties: Fennel, Ruby-The-Rescue-Chicken and Little Richard, a black hen with silky feathered feet. But the coop's architect, Ara Tripp, became inspired during construction when Fittante mentioned the Tilth Coop Tour.

"Now, I'm obligated by my vanity to do something spectacular," Tripp said. She tore down the glorified (yet humble) dog house she'd started and laid a six-sided pedestal as a foundation. From that rose a clapboard gazebo made of wood liberated from dumpsters.

"The great challenge," she said, "was building up the walls without making the structure look too thick." Tripp ripped all the slats by hand. The coop is 5 feet across and 6 feet high at its peak. It has three laying boxes and a back door that opens to an airy 8-by-8-foot pen.

"I wanted the pen so you can service and clean it without having to stoop," Tripp says. "If you want to bond with your chickens, you shouldn't have to stoop."

Artistically, the architect's goal was to unite three woodworking styles and three colors in harmonious conversation. The fish-scale siding cascades from a shingled roof offset with wide trim, beveled at 30-degree angles. The boards are painted a trio of blue-gray tones and the trim is traditional white.

Total cost of materials: $65. Tripp figures she'd normally charge $500 for labor on such a project. (She was so buoyed by the work, she gave Fittante a deep discount.)

• • •

SLEEK LINES and brilliant design innovations are the hallmarks of the modern tri-level condo built by Dave and Pam Gronbeck for their Black Australorp and two Rhode Island Reds.

Tucked unobtrusively under the deck of their 1907 bungalow, the mostly cedar coop has an angular asymmetry reminiscent of '70s cathedral-style ski condominiums.

At the main entrance, double-folding doors open wide enough to move in a chicken-sized grand piano. Despite the ample scale, the abode has a friendly rather than imposing face because of the door's kite-shaped windows.

Windows abound. The coop is sited to take advantage of afternoon sun through screened windows and minimize windy, wet weather from the south, where light floods in through paned clerestory windows. Portholes ring the home to promote healthy cross-ventilation. The cupola penthouse encourages the birds to stretch their wings for fresh air and also affords a territorial view.

Inside, five different perches rise in varying heights and textures, including white PVC piping, which is soft underfoot and easy to clean.

Other thoughtful touches include scalloped soffits, a solid brass latch and generous use of old-growth lumber (salvaged from the owners' kitchen). A laying ledge and food and water box are conveniently set at waist level so you can feed the chickens and gather eggs by simply flipping open a hatch door. Food and water dangle above the floor, in buckets, to prevent the hens from soiling their meals.

"People think it's silly to do something like this," Pam Gronbeck says. "But I think if animals are going to be penned in an area, they should be comfortable. They're part of our family."

• • •

ONE DAY, Jeff Stein looked at Margaret Kramer and said, "We should have chickens, y'know."

She said, "Yeah, you do it, and fine with me."

He built a coop but it wasn't good enough, too small for Rosie, Big Mama and Mary.

Margaret said, "That's not human."

Jeff: "I know. I gotta build a bigger coop."

He went to Second Use, an architectural salvage place near South Park, and bought an old gray fence for $50. He cut off the ground rot, turned the fence upside-down, and suddenly, it all came together: A Wild West Saloon.

The coop's tall false front has swinging saloon doors, a tar-paper overhang (for shade at high noon!) and, on each floor, two decoupage windows trimmed in barn red. The windows offer glimpses of chickens in shadowy silhouette, shades half drawn. (Margaret is an artist as well as a social worker.) Humans enter the roomy coop through a 3/4-size door marked LADIES. Inside, there's a framed print of a rooster.

The Wild West theme is echoed in a miniature saloon feeder and a covered screened porch annex made from salvaged materials. At night, a timed light in the coop gives the saloon a cozy glow that Jeff and Margaret can see from their 1908 farmhouse.

The whimsical hen house is set under tall locust trees on a street with its own Wild West history. Until 10 years ago, the street — within clucking distance of the I-90 lid — was still dirt road. Five years ago, it was home to a horse.

Now it has three chickens. "Imagine the coop in a dusty town," Stein says. "The chickens are strolling along, swaggering around, a duel at noon. They hang out, they chill out, they cross the street."

For more information about urban chicken classes and the coop tour: Seattle Tilth: 206-633-0451; www.seattletilth.org

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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